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The Socialist Awakening: What's Different Now About the Left

The Socialist Awakening: What's Different Now About the Left

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The Socialist Awakening: What's Different Now About the Left

3.5/5 (5 ratings)
140 pages
2 hours
Sep 29, 2020


From the author of THE POLITICS OF OUR TIME

"A person of the left, Judis specializes in speaking truth to liberals." - E.J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post

"Essential reading for progressives and socialists." -- Harold Meyerson, The American Prospect

As the pandemic depression lays bare the failure of market capitalism worldwide, and as protesters flood the streets in unprecedented numbers seeking racial and economic equality, many of those disillusioned with the current state of things are looking toward socialism. How did this happen? Why now?

John Judis, himself a veteran of socialist movements, explores how an ideology thought to be long dead has taken hold as a broad movement among younger people dissatisfied with mainstream politics in the United States, Great Britain, Western Europe, and Latin America. From Karl Marx to Eduard Bernstein, Eugene Debs to Victor Berger, Bernie Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn, The Socialist Awakening chronicles the rebirth of an idea driven by a rising anti-capitalist resentment among those looking to reclaim public power over the direction of private enterprise--an idea that has become urgent in the wake of the pandemic and the economic depression.

"Completing the trilogy he began with The Populist Explosion and The Nationalist Revival, journalist and political analyst Judis offers a cogent, incisive examination of growing interest in socialist ideals." -- Kirkus Reviews
Sep 29, 2020

About the author

John B. Judis is Editor at Large at Talking Points Memo and author of many books, including The Politics of Our Time: Populism, Nationalism, Socialism, The Socialist Awakening: What's Different Now about the Left, The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origin of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and The Emerging Democratic Majority, cowritten with Ruy Teixeira. He has written for numerous publications, including The New Republic, The National Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and The Washington Post Magazine. Born in Chicago, he received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Silver Spring, MD.

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Inside the book

Top quotes

  • Just as socialists isolate themselves from the broader electorate by taking orthodox Marxist stands on economics and politics, they cut themselves off by taking extreme positions on cultural issues that go beyond a commitment to democracy and equality.

  • But if Sanders is linked to the past, it is not to Debs but to Berger. Berger’s “Socialism in our Time” is the bridge to Sanders and the socialist awakening of the 2010s.

  • Victor Berger and the Milwaukee Socialists are the exception that proved the rule—that it was Debs’s conception of socialism and socialist politics that doomed the party. Debs was a centrist figure within the party, while Berger was squarely on the right.

  • New socialists see continual clashes between those who favor one or the other side of Polanyi’s double movement. In American and European history, capitalism has gone through different eras that have been defined by which of these forces reigned supreme.

  • Sanders, on the other hand, went from being an orthodox Marxist to a congressman, senator, and presidential candidate who espouses something like the new socialism of Wright, Block, or Piketty. The two men’s political journeys almost go in reverse.

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The Socialist Awakening - John B. Judis


Socialism Old and New

The philosopher Fredric Jameson once wrote, It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. Jameson, hardly known as a staunch defender of capitalism (he’s perhaps the world’s foremost Marxist literary critic), didn’t write this generations ago, but in 2003. In March 2020, as the novel coronavirus outbreak was putting millions of Americans under stay-at-home orders, and as Congress and the Federal Reserve had begun pouring trillions of dollars into the economy to soften the blow of a coming depression, Vox editor Dylan Matthews quipped: The end of the world is making it easier to imagine the end of capitalism.

The coronavirus pandemic came barely five years after the United States and Western Europe were finally recovering from the Great Recession of 2008. It has not, and will not, spell the end of the world or of capitalism, but it has put the final nail in the coffin of the laissez-faire, globalized capitalism that prevailed since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and that was perpetuated, wittingly or not, by their successors. The era of big government, which Bill Clinton claimed was over under his watch, is back with a vengeance; and so is the attention of politicians, if only for the time being, to the welfare of the many, not just the few.

The politics and political economy in the United States and Europe (not to mention elsewhere) are entering a new era, just as it happened in the early 1930s, after World War II, and then again in the early 1980s. In the early 1930s, faced with the breakdown of the gold-based international monetary system and of untamed capitalism at home, the countries of the West went in very different directions. The United States went toward Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; Central and Southern Europe went toward Nazism and fascism. Both alternatives, as socialist theorist Karl Polanyi described them in The Great Transformation, were attempts to use the power of government to protect the populace against the vicissitudes of the market.

The failure of market capitalism has been heightened by the threat posed by the novel coronavirus. All the weaknesses of the previous era—from the over-reliance on global supply chains to underfunded social services; from tax avoidance by the wealthy and large corporations to the immiseration of what are known as essential workers—have been laid bare. And after the threat of the virus recedes, the countries of the world will still face steep unemployment and a daunting task of economic reconstruction, along with the growing threat of climate change, that will require major public initiatives. These failures and weaknesses can be, as they were in the United States in the 1930s, the basis for a traditional leftwing alliance of the bottom and the middle of society against the very top. Or they can feed rightwing attempts to divide the middle and bottom through scapegoating.

Even before the current pandemic and depression, the breakdown in the older economic consensus had resulted in new and sometimes unforeseen political eruptions. Many of these occurred on the right, through the rise of a toxic us vs. them nationalist politics in the United States and Europe, and the move toward authoritarianism in Eastern Europe, Turkey, and India and toward a new cyber-totalitarianism in China. There have also, however, been unexpected flare-ups on the political left and center-left. These include a leftwing populism in Southern Europe, the rise of the Greens on the European continent, the attempt by Britain’s Labour Party to revive its commitment to socialism, and the awakening in the United States, the bastion of Cold War anti-communism, of a new socialist politics.

The principal subject of this book is the rise of a socialist politics in the United States and the failed attempt to revive socialism in Great Britain. Like my previous books on populism and nationalism, I will try to describe and explain these political phenomena. But as a longtime leftist who labored unsuccessfully decades ago trying to create a socialist movement in the United States, and whose hopes for a socialist politics have been rekindled by the Bernie Sanders campaigns, I have definite views on what socialists should and should not do to build a viable movement.

In the United States, the revival of interest in socialism has been due to Sanders, who, when he began running for president in 2015, was little known except in Vermont and on the left, and was disdained by some of his colleagues in Congress. Running as a democratic socialist, he almost won against prohibitive favorite Hillary Clinton. Four years later, Sanders again came in second, consistently winning the greatest share of voters under age forty-five—voters who hadn’t grown up in the shadow of the Cold War and with the identification of socialism with Soviet communism. In an October 2019 YouGov poll, 70 percent of millennials (ages 23–38) said they were extremely or somewhat likely to vote for a socialist.

Sanders’s failure to win the nomination was predictable, as there are still too many older Americans who associate socialism with the Soviet Union. But Sanders’s campaigns had a dramatic influence on the Democratic Party’s agenda. A host of Democrats embraced his plan for a single-payer healthcare system and his proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, not known as a democratic socialist, embraced Sanders’s plan to put workers on corporate boards. And Joe Biden, who bested Sanders for the nomination, gave key Sanders supporters prominent places on his policy task forces and crafted a campaign platform that reflected Sanders’s influence.

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has grown rapidly. In 2015, DSA had 6,000 members. A year after Sand-ers’s campaign, DSA’s membership had quintupled. After DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election to Congress in 2018, it rose to 56,000, making it the largest democratic socialist organization since the pre–World War I Socialist Party. In the wake of the pandemic and depression, it has grown to 70,000. DSA also boasts over a hundred officeholders. If the United States had a multi-party system with proportional voting, a democratic socialist party might command a very respectable 15 to 20 percent of the vote.

The young people who have taken a positive view of socialism don’t necessarily have a worked-out theory of socialism or socialist politics. In the United States, they often identify socialism with Scandinavian countries, and with public control of healthcare, education, and energy. They condemn the growing inequality of wealth and power and want a society based on cooperation rather than on cutthroat competition and on sexual and racial equality. They don’t envisage the government owning Apple or Microsoft. Sanders’s own explanation of democratic socialism runs along these same lines.

Some commentators have insisted that neither Sanders nor his young supporters are really socialists. To be a socialist, columnist Eric Levitz wrote in New York, is to advocate the abolition of profit or worker ownership of the means of production. Paul Krugman defined socialists as people who want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning. But that is not what the rising popular sympathy for democratic socialism is about. Socialism is coming back in a form that is different not only from the Soviet Union’s or Cuba’s communism, but from what socialists who consider themselves to be Marxists have envisaged. And it could play an important role in shaping voters’ reaction to what has been the greatest threat to Americans’ well-being since the Great Depression and World War II.

The Varieties of Socialist Experience

Just as there is no exclusive definition of populism, liberalism, or conservatism, there is no singular definition of socialism. According to Marxist theorist Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, the term socialism first appeared in English in the 1820s and its French counterpart, socialisme, in the 1830s. Some thinkers were described as socialists who merely concerned themselves with social matters, similar to what a sociologist would do today. But in its critical use, it referred to thinkers who rejected the competitive individualism of industrial capitalism. Socialism was paired against individualism; cooperation against competition; altruism against selfishness. It was initially inspired by the spirit of the American Revolution (all men are created equal) and the French Revolution (Liberty, equality, fraternity) and by the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. Over the subsequent centuries, it has taken at least five different forms, only one of which comes directly out of the work of Karl Marx.

Utopian Socialism: In the first half of the nineteenth century, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Pierre Joseph-Proudhon, and Henri de Saint-Simon were all described as socialists primarily on the basis of their rejection of competitive individualism. In his New Christianity, Saint-Simon advocated a spirit of association and obligation toward the poor. Owen, a Welsh textile manufacturer, sought to replace the prevailing factory system with a communal system, which he called villages of cooperation, where workers would live and be fed and have their children educated. Fourier advocated communes called phalansteries. Proudhon backed workers’ cooperatives and a philosophy he called mutualism. Fourier, Owen, and Saint-Simon hoped to spread socialism by example. Industrialists and workers would see that cooperative production was not only morally superior, but more efficient.

Christian or Ethical Socialism: The Utopian Socialists like Saint-Simon were influenced by Christian ideals, but there were a host of Christian socialists in the mid-nineteenth century who traced their views directly to the gospel. They included Philippe Buchez, who was a member of the Saint-Simon Society, and Anglo-Indian lawyer John Malcolm Ludlow, who founded a Christian Socialist movement in England in the late 1840s that advocated giving the kingdom of Christ … the true authority over the realms of industry and trade and for socialism its true character as the great Christian revolution. In the United States, Walter Rauschenbusch and a young Reinhold Niebuhr played prominent roles in promoting Christian socialism. Like Marxist socialism, it had an apocalyptic, millennial element, expressed in the idea of creating the

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    2 people found this helpful

    Socialism - because it has gone so well every time it was tried before. Read The Gulag Archipelago instead.

    2 people found this helpful